South Africa, with its rich history, rainbow of cultures, amazing wildlife and remarkably diverse topography, certainly suits its oft-used moniker, “the world in one country”. For discerning travellers and incentive groups, this makes it an adventurous destination too irresistible to turn down.
Looking back at recent achievements in the events department, South Africa has proven a noteworthy performer, having staged major events such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the COP17/CMP7 United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2011. But with an eye on hosting even more prestigious activities, the nation’s tourism officials have created the National Convention Bureau (NCB), which launched operations last April.
NCB’s timing couldn’t have been better, with MICE prospects looking bright for the next five years. South Africa has already bagged over 200 international conferences, representing about 300,000 delegate arrivals worth R1.6 billion (US$193 million) to the economy.
The lineup includes the 2012 International Small Business Congress, 2013 One Young World Summit, 4th World Conference on Doping in Sport in 2013, and the 2014 General Meeting of the International Mineralogical Association, among others. Another 30 bids are ongoing to capture 18,000 more delegates and another R162 million (US$19.5 million) for the national coffers.
“We have superb capability and infrastructure for business tourism here in South Africa,” says national tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk. “Besides three big national convention centres, we are home to numerous other facilities that give the world’s meetings and conference organisers the same quality, variety and choice that South Africa offers across the larger tourism sector.”
Van Schalkwyk adds that business tourism delegates also deliver a return rate of 40 per cent, and almost half of them pay repeat visits with a partner – close to double the return rate of a destination such as Australia.
Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo, executive manager of the NCB, suggests that since World Cup 2010, the world has a new understanding of the reception capacity of South Africa, and its facilities have grown a lot, especially for large business events groups. Many cities boast new convention and exhibition centres and large new hotels. However, as the global economy has suffered in the intervening years. With Europe, in particular, facing recent serious financial crisis, the various travel markets have inevitably weakened.
And yet, a phase of slow recovery is now beginning, especially in the business events industry. Kotze-Nhlapo reveals that many current bidders for large international conferences will only see the outcome of their bids within the next few years, and she and her colleagues are confident that within five years’ time, many international meetings and conferences will take place in South Africa. In addition to a focus on growing the number of people for business events, the NCB is also concerned with the degree of specialisation of events. It hopes to attract conferences for professionals such as lawyers, doctors and technology-related professionals, to promote growth and exchange of valuable information.
These efforts are not restricted to government initiatives, however, with private corporations also confident about the business events market. An example is Cape Town Land International, which has set up its own business events company to provide a one-stop service for clients. Also, according to Sean Bradley, global trade and product support manager of South African Airways, starting this year the airline will separate business events services from the rest, to be operated through a discrete department in order to develop emerging markets – especially those of China and India.
Eye on Asia
David Sand, managing director of Ovation South Africa, says that the Asian market is still a relatively small business segment for them, but for the first time, they participated in CIBTM in Beijing last year, and saw very positive feedback from the China market, which gives them more confidence in developing MICE business from that country.
South African hotel chain Sun International had high expectations for the post-World Cup years, and consequently set up new hotels and conference facilities in Cape Town. As detailed already, this expected growth did not occur, but in contrast to the economic and financial woes in the US and Europe, economies in the Asia-Pacific region have remained relatively vibrant, and the business events market has not suffered significantly.
According to Mark Wang, Sun International’s international sales and marketing manager, “Hong Kong and other Asia-Pacific countries used to use Sun City and the Table Bay Hotel for MICE events, but this market was not stable due to occasional media coverage about safety issues”.
However, the China market is booming. “We had quite a lot of incentive groups from greater China last year, such as Porsche, Lee Kum Kee and Chow Tai Fook Jewellery,” says Wang. The Chinese leader Hu Jintao stayed at the Table Bay Hotel during his visit to South Africa, and Michelle Obama and other VIP guests have visited the country too, raising its profile. South Africa’s zero-tariff policy has prompted many Chinese companies to open factories here, and in 2009, China became South Africa’s most important trading partner – another reason to expect its potential as an events destination to bear fruit.
Chinese visitors to South Africa numbered 84,833 in 2011 – a 24.3 per cent jump from the previous year. “China is a crucial market and we have put more resources into this particular segment,” says Kotze-Nhlapo. “With South Africa Airways finally opening direct flights from Beijing this year, this will be a great opportunity for the MICE market.”
Cape Town-based Thompsons Africa, one of the largest DMCs in South Africa, has 14 offices around the country. Andrew Camp, sales manager for the Middle East, India and Asia, says that they have gained a lot of experience in dealing with Japanese and South Asian business groups, and recently held an event for an 800-strong Japanese group. Now, China is their next major target market, and as a result they have begun to hire Chinese-speaking employees, and have established a service centre in China.
According to Camp, the challenge with the Asia-Pacific market is the short lead times. “They make decisions and changes at the last minute, which is not what we are used to, and it can also be difficult to secure the large numbers of hotel rooms required during high season,” he says. “But overall, the itinerary requests tend to be more simple than the Europe or US markets.”
For customers from Asia-Pacific markets, Kruger National Park is the most popular incentive destination, and the Garden Route, along the southeast coast, is also a common choice. Camp explains that South Africa has good infrastructure, excellent accommodation and the capability to easily meet guests’ needs. The major concern among Asia-Pacific customers is a negative perception of the country’s law and order situation, and this requires a fair amount of PR and marketing work to counteract. The reality is that most places in South Africa are very safe – and the World Cup proved this point.
As you would expect, all travel arrangements for business events are planned in completely safe areas, and guests are guaranteed to feel welcome. Jac Jacob, director of Africa Your Way, says that it is easy to arrange a highly diverse trip in South Africa, and many business events groups from Asia-Pacific come for a only a day or two of meetings, then follow these up with incentive activities for the rest of the trip, such as game safaris, visits to vineyards or coastal trips. The combination of luxury accommodation in modern city surroundings like Cape Town with exotic trips into the countryside are the crux of South Africa’s appeal – and hard to match anywhere else in the world.
Johnny Wang, management trainer, Taikang Life
Leading Chinese insurance company Taikang Life treats betwen 500 and 1,000 of its best performers annually to an overseas trip that in the past has included destinations such as Australia, Egypt, France and Hawaii. In determining where to go next, Taikang Life looks at the “unique experiences” a place can provide. Wang believes South Africa is positioned to do just that, especially since many Chinese people still have not travelled to that part of the world. “With newly launched direct flights by South African Airways from Beijing, more companies will surely be drawn to visit South Africa for their incentives.”
Yolanda Chen, director of pharmaceutical accounts division, China CYTS MICE Service
Chen’s client, a Mainland pharmaceutical company, decided to capitalise on its links to South Africa – it has a manufacturing plant there – and “do something different” by bringing an incentive group to visit. As well as staging the usual conference and gala dinner, which was held at the Southern Sun Hotel, the organisers injected a CSR element into the itinerary, which was to donate money to a local orphanage. The firm’s efforts gained them some media coverage, especially since they invited the local mayor and vice-mayor to the presentation.
Chen says Europe and the US no longer hold a strong fascination for the company’s employees, “who were looking for something new”. In South Africa they certainly got what they were after – and were happy to make a meaningful contribution in the process.
ACCESS: Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg is the main gateway and is served by South African Airways, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways.
CLIMATE: Most of the country has warm, sunny days and cool nights. Rainfall is generally highest in summer, between November and March, but around Cape Town it’s at its peak in winter, between June and August.
VISAS: Visa-free entry for 30 days or less is available for citizens of Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. For nationals of other Asia-Pacific countries, visas take five days and cost R425 (US$65). For more information, visit www.home-affairs.gov.za
LANGUAGE: South Africa has 11 official languages (including Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Sesotho and Setswana) and scores of unofficial ones. English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial life – but only the sixth most spoken home language.
Cape Town is a perennial favourite of Asian conference and incentive travel groups. The following selection of properties are well known for their outstanding event facilities.
The Westin Cape Town
This 483-room hotel is not only the first Westin in South Africa but also the largest hotel in Cape Town. It enjoys panoramic views of Roben Island and Table Bay. It has a 546 sqm grand ballroom and 11 meeting rooms, covering an area of 1,000 sqm. The hotel has the advantage of being directly linked to the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), with access from its second floor.
One & Only Cape Town
Located in the heart of the picturesque Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, this upscale urban resort features guestrooms with balconies and two outstanding restaurants, Nobu and Reuben’s. Its ballroom is well suited for an intimate sit-down dinner for 120 or small cocktails for 250, and comes with an outdoor area, which should please the smoking crowd.
The Table Bay Hotel
The setting of many high-profile international events, this 329-room landmark, along the V&A Waterfront, has a wide range of meeting facilities such as a ballroom for 300 guests, complemented by a spacious foyer and a unique Victorian-style pavilion – one of the loveliest venues in the city – facing the Atlantic Ocean. This accommodates up to 120 guests.
Taj Cape Town
The hotel blends a colourful past and stylish contemporary design. Originally the South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers, and later, the Board of Executors (BOE), this 176-room property is located at the entrance of the famous St George’s Mall pedestrian precinct. It has seven meeting rooms, with the largest able to comfortably host a banquet for 80 guests.
Southern Sun The Cullinan
Boasting glorious views of either Table Mountain or the harbour, this 410-room hotel is within walking distance of the CTICC. It has six function rooms and a ballroom that can fit up to 160 people, as well as a poolside and terrace area that is popular for cocktail receptions.